Canada Reads

Canada Reads Along 2023: Recap

Canada Reads 2023 has come to a close, with Jeopardy superstar Mattea Roach championing Ducks by Kate Beaton to victory, in the finale against Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, defended by actor Michael Greyeyes. Beaton’s graphic memoir of her time in the oil sands faced some staunch opposition along the way to victory, including some panelists struggling with the comic format, the blur of the quickly changing cast of characters, and the lack of focus on indigenous perspectives.

Roach argued that the graphic format, while new to many readers, made the heavy subject matter more accessible, and that the story’s transregional nature would appeal to a broad range of Canadians. The theme this year was “one book to shift your perspective,” and Roach set out to shift the country’s perspective on an entire medium. Jeff Lemire’s Essex County is the only other graphic novel to ever feature on Canada Reads, and it was eliminated on the first day of competition all the way back in 2010.

The Canada Reads team followed the tradition of calling the winning author after the final vote, and Kate Beaton used her air time to speak to the ongoing impact the oil sands are having on the indigenous communities of Northern Alberta.

With Canada Reads finished for this year, what should you read next?

The Canada Reads Longlist

While five titles were featured on this year’s debates, there were ten other titles on the 2023 Canada Reads longlist. Personally, I have my eye on the novel Dandelion by Jamie Chai Yun Liew, and Simu Liu’s memoir We Were Dreamers about his journey into Hollywood. I’ve also made the full 2023 longlist into a Goodreads list and a Storygraph list if you’d like to to add them to your virtual shelves!

If This, Then That

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

If your favourite book on Canada Reads this year was Ducks, try Patti LaBoucane-Benson’s graphic novel The Outside Circle, with art by Kelly Mellings. Pete is a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in the gang life, struggling to support his younger brother Joey, and his mother Bernice, who is addicted to heroin. When a fight with his mother’s boyfriend sends Pete to jail, he discovers how illusive his crew’s loyalty really is. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history. There Pete must face the many ways he has failed his family and himself .

Cover image for Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz

If you were rooting for Station Eleven, check out the prescient pandemic novel Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz. Written between 2013 and 2019, the novel begins in the summer of 2020 when New York City police officer Elliot Howe finds himself in quarantine after he learns that he was exposed to a novel coronavirus that becomes known as ARAMIS. While Elliot is quarantined, the rabid hunt begins for ARAMIS Girl, a young Asian woman falsely believed to be patient zero for the outbreak. The novel also follows Owen Grant, a writer who is reluctantly drawn into the spotlight because he wrote a novel that seemed to predict the ARAMIS outbreak, and Emma Aslet, a singer-songwriter who is planning an ARAMIS relief fundraiser while she is expecting her first child.

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia

If you were enraptured by Mexican Gothic, try Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s earlier novel, Certain Dark Things. Morena-Garcia has a special talent for making a genre her own, and in Certain Dark Things she takes on the vampire novel. Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention.

Cover image for What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

If your top pick was Hotline, you might also like What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad. This short but powerful novel follows a little boy named Amir, a Syrian refugee who washes ashore on an island where refugees are unwelcome. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

If you were hoping for Greenwood to win, pick up The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. This is the true story of the ancient tree that became known as K’iid K’iyass, or the golden spruce, a giant that stood on the banks of the Yakoun River in Haida Gwaii until 1997, when it was felled in a protest against the logging industry. Part history and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home.

Past Canada Reads Winners

If you’re new to Canada Reads, there’s also a long and rich list of past winners to choose from. Some of my favourites have included Kim Thuy’s poetic novel Ru, which won in 2015; The Illegal which won in 2016, making author Lawrence Hill the only two-time winner to date; and We Have Always Been Here, a memoir by Samra Habib which won in 2020.

Canada Reads has been running for 22 years, so you can find the full list of past winners on the CBC website, or check out my reviews of the winners dating back to 2013.

See you next year Canada Reads fans!

Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Greenwood

Cover image for Greenwood by Michael Christie

by Michael Christie


“If history were itself a book, this era would surely be the last chapter, wouldn’t it? Or have all ages believed this? That life can’t possibly go on and that these are the end times?”

Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood studies trees, in a dying world that has far too few trees left. It’s 2038, and the Great Withering has destroyed most of the Earth’s forests. One of the rare exceptions is Greenwood Island, a private resort off the coast of British Columbia that enjoys a unique microclimate which has thus far protected it from the ravages of global warming. Jake shares a name with the island, a fact she always believed to be a coincidence—she is little more than an overqualified tour guide for wealthy vacationers. But as her family tree is peeled back ring by ring, Michael Christie reveals her surprising connection to the Greenwood Timber Greenwoods, lumber barons who made their fortune in the early 20th century. The story follows the intervening generations through the century as Canada’s timber industry rises and falls.

Greenwood is a multi-generational family saga that begins with orphans Harris and Everett Greenwood. From a meagre plot of woods in Ontario, Harris goes on to found Greenwood Timber, a titan of the forest industry than Christie slips in alongside the real companies that inspired it. But Harris’ daughter, Willow, rejects her father’s fortune and becomes an environmental crusader known for her direct-action protests. She in turn is appalled by her son Liam’s decision to become a carpenter, gobbling up wood to satisfy the appetites of rich corporate clients. But none of that success can save Liam from the accident that leaves his daughter an orphan. Likeable and unlikeable, each generation’s relationship to the land tells a broader story about how Canada relates to its natural environment, and the resources we have long taken for granted.

Michael Christie takes the reader through the Dust Bowl and into a future that imagines a Great Withering that echoes it, once again brought about by the consequences of human actions. Greenwood largely reads like historical fiction but with a dystopian frame narrative set in the near future. The bulk of the novel is not set in the future but focuses on the past choices that brought the Greenwood Island resort into being. Covered in old-growth forest inspired by Galiano Island, the trees of Greenwood Island are much older than the family whose name it continues to bear long after they relinquish ownership. Intact nature becomes a valuable commodity sold to the elite as a high-end vacation experience while average citizens live in a world wracked by dust and lung disease. It is a near future that feels all too possible, wrapped in a history that resonates with familiarity.

Greenwood is defended by actor and film maker Keegan Connor Tracy on Canada Reads 2023, airing March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“It is a cautionary tale about how we have used our natural resources and how we will use them in the future, which is something that I think we really need to face as Canadians.” – Keegan Connor Tracy

You might also like:

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier (trans. Rhonda Mullins)

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Hotline

Cover image for Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah

by Dimitri Nasrallah

ISBN 9781550655940

“I’m so sad for him! It breaks my heart every time he tells me about some little sharmoot at school who insults him or pushes him or takes his lunch. I want for him to love and be loved by this new world, to make this city his own if only it will let him. My only solace is that being pushed around at school is an improvement from not going to school at all or worrying a car bomb will explode as we return from the grocery store. This has to be better.”

When Muna Heddad arrives in 1980s Montreal with her eight-year-old son Omar, she is still grieving the loss of her husband Halim to Lebanon’s civil war. Immigrating to Canada was always Halim’s plan for their family, but now it falls to Muna to carry it out alone. While Muna’s credentials as a French teacher get them into Canada, she quickly finds that there no jobs teaching French in Montreal for someone who isn’t Quebecois. With the money from her husband’s family running out, Muna accepts a job working the phonelines for a diet food plan company. Hotline follows Muna and Omar through their first winter in Canada as Muna listens to the stories of struggling Canadians on the phones, while trying to rebuild her life from the ground up.

Hotline is loosely Inspired by the true story of Dimitri Nasrallah’s mother, who brought him to Canada from Lebanon as a child, after first passing through Greece and Kuwait. In Montreal, she found a job at a weight loss centre. Making Muna the point of view character requires Nasrallah to imagine her—and therefore his own mother—not just as a parent raising her child, but also a stranger in a new land, a woman who is missing her husband, and a person with her own dreams and ambitions. While the story is largely realistic, there are portions where Muna vividly dreams or imagines that her husband Halim is there with her, the invisible partner to this new life in Canada. It is a grief that never goes away, a wound that never really heals, and yet life must go on.

Although Muna’s job is at a hotline that sells weight loss products, diet culture is not a significant focus of the story. The people on the phone lines who are struggling with their weight provide Muna with an unexpected window into the lives and problems of the Canadians who are so slow to accept her on the streets of Toronto. On the phone lines, under the pseudonym Mona, her Old World accent is charming, soothing. On the streets of the city, hunting for a teaching job, it marks her as Other. These sad, lonely callers are the people who have the lives she is supposed to being aspiring to when teachers and government official urge her to integrate into Canadian life and culture. Later in the book, when a student doctor comes to visit Omar when he is sick, the medical student tells Muna she should stop feeding him the sample packs she is allowed to take home from work, because they are just low-calorie junk food, and that she should probably stop eating them herself. This non-food has helped keep them alive, but it is also a symbol of the shadow that lurks behind the promise of the Canadian dream as they struggle to find a way into their new lives.

Hotline is defended by bhangra dancer Gurdeep Pandher on Canada Reads 2023, airing March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“The book explores racism, belonging, loneliness and single parenting, but there’s also hope. The story is set in the 1980s — but is as true today as it was then.” – Gurdeep Pandher

You might also like:

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

Brother by David Chariandy

Canada Reads, Canadian, Dystopian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St.John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

I try not to be biased, but it’s not often I get to see one of my all-time favourite books heading to the Canada Reads stage! Station Eleven was longlisted in 2016, which is–I believe–how I first discovered it, but didn’t make it to the debates. I read it anyway, and was struck by it as a post-apocalyptic narrative that focused not on the disaster itself, but the aftermath, as well as the way that pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who remember the pre-apocalypse world. I’ve since read it again with my book club, and turned to it as a familiar touchstone in the spring of 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown. If you prefer audiobooks, there’s an excellent version narrated by Kirsten Potter. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s  On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.

Read my full review from 2016.

Station Eleven will be defended by actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

Station Eleven is “an extraordinary journey into the things that hold us together — into our dreams and the things so dear to us we cannot leave them behind.” -Michael Greyeyes

You might also like:

Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan

Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction, Horror

Canada Reads Along 2023: Mexican Gothic

Cover image for Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 9780525620792

“It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books.”

When her father receives a strange letter from her recently married cousin Catalina, Noemí Taboada is dispatched from Mexico City to check on her. Noemí arrives at High Place, a moldering mansion in the mountains built on the largesse of a now-defunct silver mine, to find an odd and eerie situation. High Place is like something right out of one of the gothic novels her cousin always favoured, right down to the fact that the Doyle family doctor says that Catalina has tuberculosis. Her strange letter to the Taboadas is attributed to a fever caused by her condition. Self-assured Noemí isn’t about to let herself be scared off by Catalina’s coldly enigmatic husband Virgil Doyle, nor any of the other odd members of the Doyle clan. She may even be able to use Francis, Virgil’s awkward younger cousin who has never left High Place but clearly longs for escape. As the mystery deepens, not only may Noemí be unable to extract Catalina from High Place, but she may also find herself trapped there as well.

The Doyles are an English family that built their fortune tossing Mexican labourers into the rapacious maw of their silver mine before losing almost all of it during Mexican Revolution. Some thirty years later, the last vestiges of the Doyle family live cloistered away in High Place under the iron dictates of their dying patriarch, Howard Doyle, while Catalina’s husband Virgil stands poised to inherit. The family rarely leaves the house, and never goes to town, where strange rumours about them circulate among the local population that once provided the labour for their now-crumbling estate. The series of disasters that reduced them to their present circumstances remains shrouded in mystery.

Mexican Gothic is an eerie post-colonial horror novel set in rural 1950s Mexico. Noemí grew up in the city, with all the arts, culture and education that entails. But history still casts a long shadow over her country, and in particular the legacy of colonialism touches everything. The huge but rotting library at High Place stands as a symbol of the Doyles’ lack of interest in real knowledge, favouring instead the pseudoscience of eugenics. While Noemí studies and debates the latest in anthropology at the university, the Doyles cling to eugenics even as their supposedly superior bloodline dwindles, blaming their falling fortunes on the Revolution and the quest for Mexican independence. Only Francis, with his interest in mycology, shows any real inclination for the life of the mind.

For the first fifth of the novel, High Place is disturbing but in a relatively mundane way. Virgil is lecherous, and his father openly racist. Florence openly aids and abets them in this behaviour. Mexican Gothic is layered with history, biology, anthropology, and Moreno-Garcia’s usual dab hand for incorporating the traditions of the genre she is working in while also making it her own. As the novel progresses, the atmospheric horror ramps up steadily even as the Doyles try to keep a polite English façade on their efforts to control Catalina and manipulate Noemí. The quagmire grows deeper as Noemí becomes determined to save not just her cousin, but also Francis, the only Spanish-speaking member of the Doyle household, a sad young man who has spent his short life trapped at High Place under the thumb of his more assertive family members.

Mexican Gothic will be defended by BookTok content creator Tasnim Geedi on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“This is not just a story about dark family secrets but the lingering effects of colonialism. And Silvia does not waste a single sentence to immerse you in this chilling story, which will have you questioning everybody, including yourself.” -Tasnim Geedi

You might also like:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Canada Reads, Canada Reads Winners, Canadian, Graphic Novel, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Ducks

Cover image for Ducks by Kate Beaton

by Kate Beaton

ISBN 9781770462892

“I learn that I can have opportunity or I can have home. I cannot have both, and either will always hurt.”

Content Note: Sexual assault

Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant presents her first full-length graphic narrative in this memoir of the two years she spent working in the Alberta oil sands in order to pay off her student loans. Born and raised by the sea in Cape Breton, Beaton joined the many Atlantic Canadians seeking their fortune in the landlocked West while always longing for home. Heading first to the oil town of Fort McMurray and then into the camps of the oil companies, Beaton discovers the culture shock of being one of only a few women working in the industry. While she eventually pays off her loans in less time than it took to earn her degree, the real price is one she continues to reckon with.

Ducks makes for a somewhat grim read, dealing as it does with the double whammy of environmental devastation and sexual assault. The entire comic is drawn in greyscale, from the starkly beautiful landscapes of Cape Breton and Northern Alberta to the barren devastation of the oil sands, and even the aurora borealis and a rainbow. Beaton largely elides the first assault with four simple but effective pitch-black panels. The second time, slightly more is shown on page as she depicts herself getting up and walking away from her body while the attack takes place.

The oil town of Fort McMurray is filled with young families that were able to make a prosperous start on the largesse of the oil industry, but the town and the camps that surround it are also packed with lone men who have come from around the country to fill out the ranks. With little to do but work, the camps are a place of boredom, loneliness, isolation, and a self-reinforcing breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Drugs, alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment abound, but all are tolerated so long as they do not lead to a lost time incident that impacts the oil company. Over and over again, when Beaton finds the courage to share her story with other women, she hears one thing back: me, too.

Threaded throughout the narrative is the deep longing for home experienced by the many Atlantic Canadians forced to go west in order to find work to support their families. The camps are filled with refugees from the collapsed resource industries of Newfoundland and Cape Breton, be it mining or fishing. After experiencing constant harassment and two sexual assaults, Beaton is haunted by the idea that her own male relatives might have gone to the camps, and how the culture there would have affected them. She struggles to square this with the many moments of kindness she experiences when men from back home who know her family make a point to visit her or invite her into their homes.

Eventually Beaton succeeds in paying off her loans and saving up enough money to go home and make a proper go of her art, trying to leave the shadow of the oil sands behind. In the final panels of Ducks, she and her sister run into a man they knew at the camps while they’re out on the town with friends back home in Halifax. He speaks to them in a vulgar fashion, and when he leaves their friends are left stunned and appalled by his crass behaviour, but they are even more taken aback by the way Beaton and her sister simply accepted it as normal. And so Beaton concludes with the reminder that while you can quit the camps, you can never really leave them behind.

Ducks will be defended by Jeopardy champion Mattea Roach on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“This book is a window into so many critical conversations about the environment, about Indigenous land rights, about the student debt crisis and about gender relations. So there is an angle for every person to have their perspective shifted in some way.” -Mattea Roach

You might also like:

Messy Roots by Laura Gao

The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Canada Reads, Canada Reads Winners, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2022: Five Little Indians

Cover image for Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

by Michelle Good

ISBN 9781443459198

“There are no English words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge, and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs. Back to who she was before Sister Mary, before the school, before they tried to beat her into a little brown white girl.”

Five Little Indians follows five former residential school students as they try to make new lives for themselves in 1960s Vancouver, while being haunted by the demons of their past. Maisie, Clara, Lucy, Kenny, and Howie are all survivors of the Arrowhead Bay Indian School. Except they don’t always feel like survivors; sometimes they feel like the walking dead. Something in them was taken at Arrowhead Bay that can never be replaced, something broken that can never be repaired. It takes a different form for each of them, but the scars are always there, long after they’ve escaped or aged out of the school. “We were children, me and Lily, and neither of us survived, even though I’m still walking,” Clara explains, reflecting on a friend who died at the school.

Five Little Indians is told from alternating perspectives, usually in the third person, but occasionally in first. I felt this first person POV particularly viscerally in Maisie’s story. We meet Maisie through Lucy, who ages out of the system with nowhere to go and lands on Maisie’s doorstep on the Downtown Eastside. Maisie has been out of the school system for a year, and from Lucy’s perspective, she seems world-wise, and like she has her life together. She has a job, her own apartment, and a kind boyfriend who adores her. But when we get inside Maisie’s head, we are quickly confronted with the pain she is hiding, the cracks in her façade that she is trying so hard to plaster over so that neither her boyfriend nor Lucy will see her messy pain. This is by no means an easy book in any respect, but Maisie’s chapter was one of the hardest, grappling with the fallout of sexual abuse, sexual self-harm, and addiction.

Although she is not a POV character, Mariah’s name heads several chapters in Five Little Indians, and she plays an important role. Clara first meets her when she is run back across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to get involved with American Indian Movement. Mariah takes Clara in and, over the course of a winter, helps heal her, not just in body, but in spirit. Through Mariah, Clara finds a way to reconnect with the traditions of her people without the fear and self-hatred that the nuns drove deep into her bones. Although Mariah is not a residential school survivor herself, she represents an important connection back to the heritage the schools tried to brutally sever. She is the unbroken link to which Clara and her generation can reach back and reconnect, but only if they can see past their own pain to take her hand.

Throughout the book there are also other Indigenous secondary characters who did not attend the mission schools for various reasons, sometimes because their families hid them, or because they were Metis and therefore were not required to attend. The bond that grows up among the survivors is of a different sort from those who did not share that terrible experience, and many of them struggle to understand the long shadow it casts. Early in the book, Maisie has a very nice boyfriend, but she cannot accept his love for fear that allowing him close will let him see how broken and soiled she considers herself. Also poignant is Kendra, the daughter of two survivors. Her father was an escapee of the residential school system, but his trauma never allowed him to stop running, so he lives on the move, frequently leaving his family behind. Kendra struggles against the pain this absenteeism causes her and her mother, grappling with what it means to love her father despite his flaws. In many ways, the reader is invited to face these same challenges, to stretch beyond themselves and their own experiences, to understand, in as far as art makes it possible, the terrible pain the residential school system caused, and is still causing the Indigenous community in Canada.

Five Little Indians was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Christian Allaire, an Ojibway author and fashion writer from Nipissing. The book has been particularly topical this week, as Indigenous activists head to the Vatican in pursuit of an apology from Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed in the residential school system. Allaire’s defense of the book spoke to the fact that residential schools are often discussed only in a historical context, even though the bodies of lost children are still being exhumed. The echoes of the intergenerational trauma are still being felt and the last residential school did not close until 1996. Allaire’s defense also highlighted the fact that the book is largely set in the aftermath, and therefore focuses not on the trauma itself but on the messy, non-linear attempt to heal.

As the last challenger standing, Malia Baker had a difficult challenge to face against themes as important as truth and reconciliation, something she briefly acknowledged in her opening statement on the final day before pivoting to discuss her own book’s strengths. While there were a few moments this year where defenders spoke about reading as escapism, or the need for hopeful endings, overall this was a panel that really respected the legitimacy of difficult reads. This is also the first year I can recall that the CBC offered a content warning regarding the themes of all the books, and provided accompanying support resources.

Five Little Indians moved quietly through the first half of the week, the only book not to have any votes against it on the first two days, where we saw Life in the City of Dirty Water and What Strange Paradise eliminated. Meanwhile, Christian Allaire consistently cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Both books feature a cast of characters from disenfranchised communities, and employ alternating perspectives including both first and third person narration. The structural and thematic similarities led me to suspect this was strategic voting on Allaire’s part, something he confirmed when he appeared for a post-victory interview on Jael Richardson’s Instagram channel. When targeting Scarborough, Allaire narrowed in on the fact that the even larger cast of POV characters made it harder to get to know them compared to the core cast in Five Little Indians. He also spoke to the character of Sylvie and the Beaudoin family, saying that as the only Indigenous characters in the book he found their development lacking, and that Sylvie primarily existed to in the narrative to serve other characters’ stories. Malia Baker attempted to counter this line of argument by highlighting Sylvie’s role a storyteller who is still coming into her own voice during the main events of the book.

It was clear by the third day of debate that both Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury viewed Five Little Indians as the book to beat if they wanted to head into the finale. They both voted against it, while free agents Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black. Due to the tiebreaking rules this left Christian Allaire, who had voted against Scarborough, to have to move his vote to one of the two books up for elimination. Since one of them was his own, naturally he voted to eliminate Washington Black, taking Five Little Indians to the finale against Scarborough. In his final defense, Allaire called on readers to accept a little bit of discomfort in order to empathize with the truths of residential school survivors and enable healing. In an unusually unified final vote, all of the panelists except for Scarborough defender Malia Baker voted to make Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2022! Thanks for joining me and don’t forget to check out some of the past winners like We Have Always Been Here (2020) and By Chance Alone (2019).

If you liked Five Little Indians you might also enjoy:

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

The Break by Katherena Vermette

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2022: Scarborough

Cover image for Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

by Catherine Hernandez

ISBN 9781551526782

“He opens his arms and asks if I would like a hug. I walk to him. I’m so scared. But then he holds me. He smells like food. He smells like flowers. And smiles. And sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames. I’ve never been hugged like that before, and that hug feels so good, so I hug him back. It feels so good to hug someone who will never hit you.”

When Miss Hina takes a position working for a government literacy program in Scarborough, east of Toronto, she finds herself embedded in a community full of people struggling to get by. Cory has just taken in his seven-year-old daughter Laura after his ex-wife abandoned her at a bowling alley. Marie is beginning to suspect that her young son Johnny may have a disability, but much of her time an energy is preoccupied by the fact that they’re currently living in a shelter with no prospect for stable housing. Edna sees that her young son Bing is queer, and loves him unconditionally, but has to figure out the best ways to support him in a community where his differences will not be appreciated. Fighting against a system that has specific ideas about what services she should be providing to the community without reference to what its people actually needs, Miss Hina sets out to make a small difference in the lives of these children and their families.

Set in 2011, Scarborough follows the cycle of a school year as Miss Hina begins her work in the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the Rouge Hill Public School. Catherine Hernandez employs shifting perspectives in first and third person narration that reveal the poverty and racial tensions that simmer through the neighbourhood. Marie’s family is homeless, living in a local shelter while she also tries desperately to access the services to get her son assessed for developmental disabilities. Cory relies on some of the resources Miss Hina can provide, but he mistrusts her hijab and the colour of her skin. He does not want her touching his daughter, and his past as neo-Nazi is ever-present in the background. Every family is facing its own challenges and fighting an faceless, inhumane system that does not see them as people.

In addition to first and third person narrative, Hernandez also employs attendance reports filed by Miss Hina, and emails between her and her distant supervisor, who is unfamiliar with the situation in Scarborough. Miss Hina faces pressure to ensure families aren’t treating the snacks she provides as a free breakfast program, even though lack of access to dependable meals is a major learning barrier for the children in her community. A larger story of systemic failure plays out through these interactions, highlighting the precarious funding of the literacy program at the whims of the sitting government, and the particular agendas of the administrators who control the program budget. All this takes place as a backdrop to the day-to-day struggles of the characters who are simply looking for their next meal or more stable housing.

The stories in Scarborough are interconnected and overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways, and from multiple directions. The neighbourhood is at once large, and so very small. Michelle, the shelter worker, sees two men arguing in the street when she steps out for her smoke break. When we get to Clive’s chapter, we experience this encounter firsthand, and realize that the drunk man is Cory, stumbling through the nearly deserted streets, trying to figure out how he will provide Christmas dinner for his daughter. Things have a way of looping back on one another in a multiplicity of perspectives that add up to form the story of a community that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Scarborough was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by actor and activist Malia Baker, who at fifteen is also Canada Reads’ youngest ever panelist. Baker is from Vancouver, and in her opening statement she highlighted the fact that Scarborough is such a microcosm of Canada as a whole that it spoke to her despite the fact that she had no personal connection to the setting. She also argued that the book’s depiction of community and multiplicity of perspectives is what made it the One Book to Connect Us, which is the Canada Reads 2022 theme. Throughout the week of debates, Baker more than held her own against the much older panelists, successfully championing Scarborough to the finale against Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, which was defended by fashion writer Christian Allaire.

Throughout the week of debates, Christian Allaire was also the only panelist consistently casting his vote against Scarborough, perhaps sensing that thematically and structurally it was his closest competition. Before the finale, no other panelist had cast a vote against it, though that doesn’t mean that it did not come in for criticism. Christian Alliare repeatedly called out the fact that he wanted more from the character of Sylvie, particularly since her family constitutes Scarborough’s Indigenous representation. Indeed, the development of character came up from many of the panelists over the course of the week. Because of the structure of the book and the large cast of characters, we do not spend much time in any one point of view. Many of the characters are barely more than a glimpse, flitting in and out of the story before we get a chance to really know them. However, some of these snapshots are highly effective, and many of the panelists called out the character of Cory who is memorably human while also being thoroughly despicable in his racism.

During the final day of the debates, host Ali Hassan raised questions about how the two remaining books took readers inside the hearts and minds of the characters, revealed our shared humanity, and changed how the panelists moved through the world. The conversation moved quickly, and all too soon it was time for the final round of ballots to be cast. Unanimous votes are rare on Canada Reads in any circumstance, but this may be the first time since I began following the program that such a unified vote took place during the finale. Defender Malia Baker voted against Five Little Indians (only one panelist has ever voted against their own book). However, all four of the other panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Scarborough, making Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2022! Need to catch up? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

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